It was as clear as day, not that there was any daylight in the station. Projected planet-light was all they got.
Clear though they were, bright they were not. Beneath their burnt caramel shell, there was an unhealthy look to them: black but a green black, as if jet had become sick. And there, recessed in a particle that was less than a hundred nanometers in size, were the letters K and T.
Xu passed the view to her deputy who said, ‘Those look like initials.’
A name, someone who was K and T.
‘There’s only one person on the station that it could be,’ said Xu, looking at her deputy.
Katalin Teller, the scientist, it had to be her. She was always busy in her lab, working on nanoparticles. It was time to get her in.
Never before had Dr Katalin Teller needed to go to the police module. Now she found herself with a formal summons.
So far in her time aboard the floating object in space, she had been mostly left alone, to her work, just how she liked it. They said that they needed her to identify some particles, she was not sure why. Hers were all stored safely in her laboratory, the very room she was leaving.
Identifying particles, as if it was the body of a loved one that they needed her to confirm.
She was indeed working with some remarkable nanoparticles, why the station’s rozzers had stock of them she did not know. None had escaped her protective clutches, none of them could have just floated away. Her lab was secure against the far wall of the torus, where gravity was strongest.
X-ii station was a simple ring, spinning around its axis. Four spokes led to a central spire, ‘The Axle’. To one that lived on board, it was all too easy to forget that ‘down’ was simply the direction that pointed out from the centre. In large enough rooms one could see that the ceiling, the whole room in fact, was curved. Most rooms were small enough to maintain the illusion of a normal, planet-oriented building.
Katalin was grateful for that, and she did her best to avoid going down the spokes as much as possible. Shifting into lower gravity made her insides lurch. She was taking the longer route, round the entire torus, avoiding the zero-gee approach through The Axle. They hadn’t been very polite in asking her over there, she didn’t mind taking her time.
She turned to the screens shaped like windows and was treated to a view of the planet they orbited, currently half-shrouded in shadow. Katalin Teller would never have been able to conduct her research planet-side. Up here, in this box, she had freedom. X-ii was a miracle, really.
People down there weren’t happy about the presence of X-ii, hanging in their sky, stealing their planet-light. There were even those that wanted to destroy the station, and all it stood for, but fortunately they were few in number. The Planetary Defence League, they called themselves. Confirmed as a terrorist organisation, rumours of infiltration attempts abounded.
Teller shuddered and quickened her pace.
The module that housed the station’s security forces was oddly quiet. Detective Xu had met her as another officer left, leaving only the two of them inside.
Xu nodded but Teller couldn’t shake off an unformed feeling. This detective looked different to how she remembered from their only previous encounter.
‘Are they yours, then?’
Katalin was looking at images taken from an electron microscope, showing nearly spherical shapes, with their outer red-brown coating, next to images zoomed in beyond the shell to the blackness beyond. The colouring was slightly off, but there were the letters. A good artist always signs her work.
‘Yes, they look to be mine.’
‘Are you sure about that?’
‘They are mine, why would I lie? My name’s initialled right there, as plain as planet-light. How did you come by these?’
Xu said nothing, looked as if she did not trust herself to respond.
Katalin pushed on. ‘These are the nanoshells I’m working on at the moment, none should have left my laboratory. And yet, here we are, on the other side of the station.’
‘Well, the things is…’
‘What is it? Spit it out.’
‘These particles, they were, um, found…in an unexpected place.’
‘They were found in the lungs of a Mr Nguyen.’
Katalin hadn’t expected that. Her shock must have shown on her face.
‘Yep,’ said Xu. ‘Shall we have a look?’ They moved towards the doors marked ‘Forensics’.
Beyond the doors was a tiny antechamber, barely big enough for the two of them. ‘You are now entering a quarantined zone,’ said an automated voice, gentle and reassuring in tone.
‘It’s just a formality, can’t undo the system,’ said Xu, her eyes wide and apologetic.
‘Is it all really necessary?’
‘Probably not. But we do need you to examine the body…’
‘How long is it likely to last? I have work to get back to, you know.’
‘Shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours. I’m sure we can convince the computer we’re clean before too long.’
Katalin frowned, but allowed herself to be party to a full body scan, confirming that she was not bringing in an extra dose of pathogens. The doors hissed open; not without a sense of drama they even issued a small gust of steam.
‘Sorry about that,’ said Xu, leading the way through the door. She was definitely taller than Katalin remembered. Must have grown a few centimetres, clearly taking to life aboard the station.
‘Not at all. Now, show me these particles.’
No one else was in Forensics, she noted, as the door hissed shut behind them, finishing with a decisive clunk. Sealed in tight.
Of course she recognised the corpse that had formerly belonged to Mr Nguyen, lying on the slab in front of them. A willing test subject, she hadn’t seen or heard from him in a week.
‘When did you find him?’ she asked, her mouth dry, the air staying choked deep down in her belly, struggling to come out or to let the wriggling words break free.
‘Two days ago, in the arboretum. Curled up, as if in pain, with his hands over his mouth.’
‘…And the particles? How do they factor into this?’
Xu looked around, as a shelf extended from the wall behind her. A test tube poked out, full of rotted black ooze.
‘This…stuff was found in the lungs, forcing the immediate quarantine setting on the room. So far no one’s got sick, but the computer won’t let us take chances.’
Katalin looked at the tube with disgust. ‘Look, there’s simply no way that my particles could have anything to do with Mr Nguyen’s death, tragic though it may be. A dead man doesn’t change science.’
‘What did we find, then?’
‘I don’t know. But I can tell you it’s nothing to do with me. My gold-plated nanoshells are for increased drug dispersal, and nothing else. They can’t drown a man, if that’s what you’re insinuating.’
‘Drown, who said anything about drowning?’
‘I thought you said that you found this black mass in his lungs? That suggests he drowned in this liquid, whatever the hell it is.’
‘We hadn’t got around to using that word yet,’ said Xu, suddenly shy. ‘We hadn’t confirmed the cause of death yet.’
‘Shall I take a look then? Help you out?’ Katalin looked around, into every corner of the room. ‘Given that no one else seems to be likely to do that anytime soon.’
‘Please, that’s why we called you here.’
Sure enough they were her particles, her brainchild, her beautiful nanoshells. Nguyen had taken a treatment of them a week ago, had reported to be fine. All tests showed that the course of nanoshells had responded well to the subject, as she had predicted they would. Nguyen had reported no ill feelings, and the medicine he was given disseminated with a 35% increase in efficiency.
So why did she see micro lacerations in the lungs, where her particles had gathered in a sludgy soup? Unmistakably they were hers, the incriminating Ks and Ts could be seen. A green hue oozed out from the perfect black she had manufactured, a taint on her work.
‘Something’s wrong here.’
‘No, I mean, with my particles. They’re different.’
‘But they’re yours, aren’t they?’
‘Yes,’ said Katalin, frustrated. She wanted to hit Xu then. ‘They’re different, they look different to how they look back in my lab. Somehow they’ve been changed.’
‘How is that possible?’
‘I don’t know. But all I can think is that someone, possibly a planet terrorist, stole them from me and weaponised them. Mr Nguyen was the first test subject.’ She looked over at the body. If he was found in public…
‘I need to get out of here,’ she said. ‘We need to stop this from spreading or others will end up like Nguyen, bodies full of this stuff.’
‘You are in a quarantine zone,’ said the calm voice, as Katalin lurched at the door.
‘We don’t have time for this!’
‘You are in a quarantine zone,’ it said again, unimpressed at her impatience.
‘There’s not much you can do with that.’ Xu had come up behind her, watching her attempts to leave with a strange look on her face. Teller really didn’t recognise her.
‘Can’t you override it?’ Katalin asked. ‘We need to protect the station!’
‘There’s nothing I can do.’
‘So we’re trapped in here?’
‘Looks like it.’
Hours passed, still the computer wouldn’t let them out, no matter how much Teller yelled at it. Xu did nothing, even when she turned on her, eyes burning furiously. She just repeated herself: the computer would let them out when it deemed the area safe.
‘All we can do is sit down and wait it out,’ she said, from her seat. She had followed her own advice to the letter, and it enraged Teller.
‘I can’t do anything about these particles if I’m stuck in here.’ She spoke through gritted teeth, the words dribbling out like she was poisoned. ‘And I don’t like being stuck in here with a dead man, with weaponised nanoshells resting in his lungs.’
Katalin looked about the room, at the still placid detective Xu, sat down, one step away from twiddling her thumbs. ‘Why aren’t you more worried about all this?’ she asked her. Xu just shrugged. Katalin continued to look around the mostly empty room, bare except for the slab on which Nguyen rested, and the two chairs. There was only the minimum of equipment in here to carry out a post-mortem on their friend, and little else to be used to examine the cause of death.
Teller had been in a forensics room once before, and it was a lot better stocked than this. Where were the forensics team? Why was it just her and Xu? And then it hit her.
‘It’s you,’ she said. Xu looked back at her blankly. ‘You’re the reason we can’t leave this room. You wanted me trapped in here, to breathe in these shells.’
Xu, or the person who was disguised as the detective, nodded. ‘They’re dispersing around the station right now. I suggest you take a seat.’ Katalin was surprised to find herself sitting down as requested. ’I’m the only one who can unlock the quarantine door. Incapacitating me means you're still trapped in here, alone with Nguyen and all that stuff.’
‘You’re Planetary Defence League, then?’ It was over, they had won.
‘You’ll die too.’
The sacrifices they would make, all in the name of destruction. And it would all be blamed on the inventor, Dr Katalin Teller, unable to warn the inhabitants. When the rescue teams found this dead box, she would go down in history as the defiler of X-ii.
©Thomas J. Spargo 2017